“Their happy days are over,” President Benigno Aquino III said on Friday, speaking to government troops about Moro rebels who stormed into the city early in the week but had been boxed into a desperate position by state security forces.
Mr. Aquino arrived in Zamboanga City in the morning to inspect government positions and check on the condition of about 15,000 residents who had been evacuated from the villages where fighting between state forces and the Moro rebels was going on.
In a speech after distributing food, medicine and other supplies to the troops, Mr. Aquino declared that the government was fully prepared to neutralize the “enemies of the state,” referring to the rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction led by Nur Misuari who launched an attack on coastal villages in the city on Monday.
“It is clear why they are branded enemies of the state and enemies of our people, and we’re sworn to protect our people,” Mr. Aquino said, assuring the residents of the city and surrounding areas that the government was on top of the situation.
“Perhaps what’s more important is that your government is working to ensure that a situation like this does not happen again. We have to recognize that there are certain people who have their own agenda, which is divorced from the interests of the majority, if not the entire country,” he said, explaining the motive of Misuari’s faction of the MNLF for attacking villages and government installations here.
Against MILF deal
Misuari opposes peace talks between the government and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that have led to the signing of a preliminary agreement for the establishment of a Bangsamoro autonomous region in Mindanao.
The two sides are working on the last provisions of the preliminary agreement, and are expected to sign a final peace accord before Mr. Aquino’s term ends in 2016.
But Misuari insists that the government should instead fully implement the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF, which is up for review in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on Sept. 16.
Seeking to derail the peace process with the MILF, Misuari declared an “independent Bangsamoro Republik” in July and his faction of the MNLF launched the attack on Zamboanga City on Monday, the eve of the resumption of negotiations between the government and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
About 200 MNLF rebels stormed several coastal villages, unaware that the government had discovered their plan three days earlier.
They ran into defensive fire from military troops and police and were boxed in the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and Talon-Talon.
The rebels seized civilians and used them as human shields to thwart an assault by government troops.
Speaking on the fifth day of the fighting, President Aquino assured the residents of Zamboanga that the government had an “overwhelming number of troops” in the city to ensure that “those who have ill intentions will not succeed.”
Mr. Aquino called on civilians to keep out of harm’s way.
Addressing the troops, the President said the government valued not only the lives of the civilians but also the lives of the soldiers.
Mr. Aquino thanked the troops and local officials for fulfilling their duties.
“On behalf of the people, I thank you,” Mr. Aquino said.
“We have very significant advantages against the enemy. We will try everything to help those who have gone astray. It is important that we try not to take advantage of the situation,” the President said. “Keep safe. We are here with you.”
Mr. Aquino arrived in the city at 10 a.m. to personally assess the situation.
He received a briefing from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and the city government’s crisis management committee at the military’s Western Mindanao Command headquarters.
After the briefing, the President distributed goods to military personnel, including vitamins and cell phone cards.
Mr. Aquino also visited wounded soldiers at Camp Navarro General Hospital within the Westmincom premises.
The President promised financial assistance to the families of wounded soldiers and those of soldiers killed in the fighting—P50,000 for the wounded and P250,000 each for the families of those killed.
At a news conference after his address to the troops, the President denied a report that 80 MNLF rebels had surrendered.
“The report is untrue. No one has surrendered,” Mr. Aquino told reporters.
“There were arrests,” the President said, but gave no details.
The President’s trip to Zamboanga City was shrouded in secrecy, with Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang flatly denying reports on Thursday that Mr. Aquino had plans to fly to Zamboanga.
But yesterday, Carandang backtracked and sent out a media advisory saying that the President was already on his way to the city.